The first time Thomas Tilghman set foot on a college campus, he was a sophomore in high school. He can still remember how vast the grounds of San Diego State University seemed to him, how he imagined that his entire high school could fit into one of SDSU’s cavernous libraries. “I was awestruck,” Tilghman says. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen at the time.”
College was an audacious ambition to the 16-year-old Tilghman, a student in the Sweetwater Union School District near San Diego, where his peers were by and large from minority and low-income families. Many, like Tilghman, would be the first in their families to go to college. “I was always that kid who wanted to be successful,” Tilghman says. “I knew I wanted to be smart and pursue an education, but I didn’t know what I had to do.”
Last month, Tilghman collected his diploma at San Diego State’s Viejas Arena in front of 12,000 people, with his mother beaming in the audience. He partially attributes his achievement to Compact for Success, a program created more than a decade ago to ensure Sweetwater students weren’t hemmed in by their circumstances and missing out on the fruits of a college education.
In 1999, Ed Brand, superintendent of the Sweetwater Union High School District, met with then-San Diego State President Stephen Weber to address the question of why so few Sweetwater students were enrolling in and graduating from their neighborhood college. Together, they crafted a regimen to increase those college-bound and graduation rates.
It is universally acknowledged that a college degree remains the cornerstone of upward mobility today, and that to compete in the global economy, the United States must produce more college grads, particularly among low-income and minority students. If current trends persist, the country will be short 3 million graduates by 2018, according to a study by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. And while 28 percent of the national population over the age of 25 holds a bachelor’s degree or higher, the figure is 17 percent for black Americans and 13 percent for Hispanics.
National Journal selected the Compact for Success program as our leading innovator in higher education because it has proven a creative, highly collaborative way of expanding opportunity in a postsecondary system that now often functions to reinforce class distinctions rather than transcend them. All of the programs honored in this category are confronting the intertwined problems of expanding access, improving graduation rates, and constraining costs. But Compact for Success stood out for its comprehensive and sustained approach to one of education’s toughest problems: shepherding more minority young people to advanced degrees at a time when they represent most of the workforce’s future growth.
First, teachers from Sweetwater and faculty from SDSU worked to increase the rigor of the high school curriculum and align it to meet the requirements for college admissions. Administrators then agreed upon five benchmarks that, if met by Sweetwater students, would guarantee them admission into San Diego State, including hitting a 3.0 GPA, fulfilling certain course requirements, passing English and math proficiency tests, and taking the ACT or SAT exams.
“We had the perfect storm of a large group of kids that were needing to have the opportunity to go to college, a university with a new president who was open to new ideas, and a school district that was willing and able to create a structure to produce college-ready kids in a short period of time,” Brand says. “So now, the kid in seventh grade can say, ‘I can control my destiny. All I have to do is to follow this road map.’ ”
But what really distinguishes Compact for Success is the extensive support system it has put into place and the culture of educational attainment it has engendered.
Sweetwater students are mentored from the time they are in middle school by San Diego State students. Every spring, seventh-graders from Sweetwater schools arrive at SDSU by the busload and are given a grand tour and a pep talk from the SDSU president, before signing a pledge to go to college. In 10th grade, they tour campus once again, and the following year they attend a class assembly to make sure they are on track to meet the benchmarks. “We bombard them with what it takes to go to college from the very beginning,” says Lou Murillo, the director of Compact for Success. “These students are coming from households where English is not spoken and there’s not a history of higher education. Quite a few will be the first ones in their family to go to college.”
Once they arrive at SDSU, the Compact Scholars program takes over. Services include a freshman seminar that acquaints Sweetwater students with university life; an exclusive “learning lounge” that serves as a study space for scholars, most of whom commute to SDSU; and personal counseling from program Director Janet Abbott.
The results have been encouraging, while still underscoring the extent of the challenge. From 2000 to 2010, the number of Sweetwater Union students enrolling at San Diego State more than doubled, from 308 to 650. Although only about a quarter of Compact Scholars graduate in four years, the six-year graduation rate is 63.2 percent, slightly higher than the university’s overall 62.8 percent six-year graduation rate and a striking achievement, given the obstacles many of these young people face. Nationally, the six-year graduation rate for Hispanic students is 51 percent.
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